She picked up her pace as she wandered west toward the river and soon arrived at an open-air sports arena. A thousand or more fans sat on blankets all around a large, flat depression between two mounds. The place was bigger than a football field, with sixteen-foot tall poles at either end.
Two teams were going at it: running up and down the field, each player with a stick in each hand. The sticks had little mesh cups on one end, and they used them to carry a little ball back and forth. There were about twenty on a side, and Taylor had seen nothing like them.
It was a fast, brutal game. Apparently, you were allowed to tackle the player who had the ball, because players were constantly slamming into each other. They didn’t wear any padding. In fact, they played barefooted, wearing just a loincloth and war paint, with a horsehair tail trailing behind them.
But something else was also going on. Occasionally, some- one would lunge at an opposing player, only to have his target vanish into thin air with a flash of light. Then, he would reappear somewhere else on the field and continue his run toward the goal post. At other times, a runner would stop short, magically blasted off his feet by a member of the other team. Or else he changed course unexpectedly as if he saw an opponent rushing him even though no one was there.
It was like a non-lethal form of combat, with generous doses of magic added in.
She looked up from the game. Ayoka was weaving toward her through the crowd of spectators.
“You made it!” Ayoka smiled. She looked like an ordinary teenage Native American girl, dressed similar to Taylor. No sooner had the two girls hugged each other than the crowd erupted in wild applause.
The girls whipped around to see one team, dressed in red loincloths, lifting one of its members into the air in exultation.
From somewhere near the field, an amplified voice called out something in a language Taylor didn’t understand, followed by, “Ichisi goal by Shupco for one point. Ichisi 13, Tsuwatelda 10.”
“They’ve been on fire for the last half hour,” Ayoka said. “Four unanswered points!”
“Uh…right,” Taylor said. Ayoka and her family were visiting from Tsuwatelda, or what Topsiders called Pilot Knob, North Carolina.
“My parents are saving us seats,” Ayoka said. “This way.”
Taylor followed her friend through the maze of spectators. Ayoka kept one eye on the game, which wasn’t easy when fans jumped up to cheer for their team or complain when they did something wrong.
“You’ve never seen stickball, have you? At least, not the way we nunnehi play it?”
“Not the way anybody plays it.” Taylor winced as two players went down in a flash of crimson light.
“It’s pretty simple,” Ayoka went on, weaving among the spectators and their blankets and coolers. “The goal post has two marks: one halfway up and another one between the mid- dle and the ground. Hit the goal with the ball between the two marks for one point, above the midline for two points, or the very top for three.”
Taylor noted the oblong wooden finials at the top of each goalpost. “And you’re allowed to use magic?” Taylor said.
“You can’t charm the ball or the sticks—yours or another player’s—and there’s no shapeshifting or size-shifting allowed. Other than that, yeah, pretty much anything that won’t cause a permanent injury is fair game. Blinking, blasting, invisibil- ity, glamour diversions…whatever you can think of, as long as you’re at least ten yards from the goal post. See those circles on the field?”
Just then a player in a black loincloth leaped into the air and used one of his sticks to fling the ball toward the nearest goalpost. It slammed into the finial, which spun around like a weather vane in a tornado. Ayoka shrieked and pumped her fist in the air while most of the fans around her shook their heads.
The announcer said something again, then translated: “Tsuwatelda goal by Tsisgwa for three points, and the score is tied at 13.”
“That’s my cousin!” Ayoka beamed.
“I remember,” Taylor said. She had seen Tsisgwa from a distance back in April. Her heart fluttered as the young fae spun and dodged on the field, his bare chest heaving with exertion, a look of fierce concentration on his face. She looked away before she started to blush.
They soon found Ayoka’s parents seated near what Taylor would have called the fifty-yard line.
“You remember my parents, don’t you?”
A nunnehi man and woman smiled at Taylor. She nodded and took her seat on the blankets they had spread out.
“I don’t see a clock,” Taylor said. “How do you know when the game is over?”
“They play to fifteen points, so there’s probably just a few more minutes left. They’ve been at it since sunrise.”
Ayoka nodded, then jumped up to cheer something that happened on the field.
“You’re really into this, huh?”
Ayoka nodded again. “I wish girls could play—I mean, on this level. Everybody plays when they’re kids, of course. But I qualified for the exhibition game—only kids age twenty-five to fifty. That starts this afternoon.”
Taylor had nearly forgotten that Ayoka had just turned twenty-six years old, even though she only looked about thirteen or fourteen.
There was another bone-crunching tackle. A couple of players from both teams sprawled on the field. They were quickly escorted off, however, and play continued almost immediately.
“And I thought football was violent,” Taylor muttered.
“Is football how Topsiders train their warriors?” Ayoka asked.
“It’s mostly how they keep the big dumb jocks all in one place so they can keep an eye on them. Wait a minute: this is warrior training?”
“Sure. We call it ‘little brother of war.’ In the past, the nunnehi have even used it as a substitute for bloodshed. Whoever wins the game, wins the war.”
“Wow,” Taylor said. “That’s…intense.”
Everyone around her was suddenly on their feet. The Ichisi team was driving toward the goal, the ball in the possession of a giant of a man who muscled through the Tsuwatelda defenders like they were children. Tsisgwa flew toward him in a flying tackle, but the Ichisi player blinked away in a flash of super- heated dust, appearing just outside the no-magic line. Just as suddenly, another Tsuwatelda player blasted him with an explosion of purple flame, and the ball came loose from his stick.
Players from both teams scrambled to retrieve the ball. It looked to Taylor like an honest-to-goodness riot was about to break out, when at last an Ichisi player swatted the ball into the cup of an awaiting teammate. This player wasted no time: he flung the ball toward the goal just as four Tsuwatelda players piled into him.
The ball sailed through the air for thirty feet and struck the goalpost above the midline.
“Ichisi goal by Enomako for two points and the win. The final score: Ichisi 15, Tsuwatelda 13.”
“Arrgh! We almost did it!”
“Maybe next time,” Ayoka’s dad said. “Come and eat something before you have to get ready.”
Ayoka’s mom opened a picnic basket and offered both girls sandwiches and fresh fruit: a delicious selection of apples and plums. Ayoka scarfed down her sandwich like she hadn’t eaten in a week.
“Slow down, honey,” her mom said. “You’ll give yourself a stomachache.”
“I’m just itching to get started,” she said. “Can I have some cookies?”
“Sure,” her mom said, digging into the picnic basket.
Taylor’s eyes wandered across the playing field, now empty except for attendants smoothing out the densely packed earth and spreading out a fine coat of sand.
The spectators were a sight to see. If anything, they were even more diverse than the residents of the town of Ichisi she had seen on the way in. Fae of every conceivable size and appearance were there: young women in dresses made of leaves, pointy-eared men no taller than children in bright tee shirts and tennis shoes, bronzed men in buckskins who stood nearly seven feet tall, green-haired, barefooted maidens in diaphanous beach cover-ups. Across the field was a man whose tee shirt said, “The Wild Hunt – 1997.”
With the playing field in order, a nunnehi musical group began to sing an upbeat song in their own language. Many in the crowd began to join in.
When she turned back around, Taylor saw that Ayoka had finished off her second cookie and was opening a bag of fruity candy.
“Hungry?” she scoffed.
“Stuffed,” Ayoka said, “but I’ll need my magic for the tournament.”
“Oh, right.” Sweet snacks helped to power fae magic. Taylor wondered how many cookies those stickball players had to put away to do the things they were doing.
“I’d better get going,” Ayoka announced. “Taylor, you can go with me if you like. Get a front row seat?”